Al Stewart: Time Passages

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ImageYou know the Maxwell House ad wherein a supposedly wise old coffee lover counsels a young man to stick with what works? To judge by this followup to Al Stewart’s first platinum disc, I suspect that he couldn’t agree more. If anything in the new LP departs significantly from its predecessor, in fact, it’s unnoticeable.

Besides being reminiscent of Year of the Cat, the present disc is just as accessible and well polished. Witness, for example, the lilting “Song on the Radio,” which opens with an ear-catching burst from its prominent alto sax; in addition to a hook line that may help the number become exactly what its monicker says, it features a pensive lyric in which Stewart characteristically describes a relationship in terms of shared time.

Many of the other tracks also prove instantly likable. “Timeless Skies” and the title cut, for example, are both nostalgic moments with poignant verse and vibrant, professionally honed music. Besides boasting a sparkling acoustic guitar solo, meanwhile, “Almost Lucy” deftly introduces a woman who buries pain with layers of rationalization. Also noteworthy is “The Palace of Versailles,” a poetic look at the French revolution’s unfulfilled promises.

To some extent, such tunes serve to underscore the validity of the Maxwell House credo. Of course, however, music isn’t coffee; one hopes that an artist’s output will display not just consistent quality but ambition and innovation as well.

As I’ve already suggested, this is not generally the case with Time Passages. Though Stewart’s longstanding partnerships with his backup crew and producer Alan Parsons still make sense, for instance, the artist appears to have few fresh ideas as to how to use them. Many of the arrangements and riffs here—as well as the frequent alto sax breaks—sound similar to those on Year of the Cat. The same can be said for Stewart’s phrasing and overall melodic turf.

While Time Passages doesn’t alter my belief that Stewart ranks with rock’s most articulate writers, the shortage of new ideas seems even more obvious from a lyrical standpoint. One can’t fault the man for again offering historical vignettes or for reemphasizing his fascination with time (a subject that his last five LP titles have all embraced); nor would I suggest that imaginative, provocative lines could not be found anywhere on the current album. Quite a few of the tracks here, however, strike me as being little more than recyclings of or variations on old ideas; and not one of them accomplishes anything more ambitious than what Stewart achieved on the now four-year-old Past, Present and Future.

If you like Stewart’s music as much as I do, however, you probably ought to buy the album despite such shortcomings. After you’ve played it a few times, you may wish that he had done more than show off previously demonstrated abilities; but I doubt that you’ll wish for your money back.

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